The University debate: There's more than one way to learn

Going up to Oxford taught the novelist Philip Hensher life's possibilities. Going straight into employment gave the entrepreneur Simon Dolan a head start at work. So who had the advantage?

Thursday 17 February 2011 01:00

Philip Hensher

I was only the second person in my family to go to university, after my sister. So when I got to Oxford, in the autumn of 1983, I didn't have a lot of tradition to live up to.

You quite quickly met people who were ready to tell you about what their fathers or grandfathers had done "in their day".

One of the first people I met told me that his father had – as an undergraduate – accidentally killed a swan while punting and had plucked and drawn the thing before roasting it on the fire in his room. I was pretty sure none of my ancestors had ever done such a thing. They would have mentioned it.

Oxford at that time was in one of its periodic fits of conspicuous poshness. I hate to say it, but I think it was all down to the ITV dramatisation of Brideshead Revisited, a couple of years before. You really did see people walking the streets carrying teddy bears.

Dining societies were everywhere; people from perfectly ordinary backgrounds started saying "yah" and "hogwhimpering" and throwing "jazz and cocktail" parties.

Perhaps, now, nearly 30 years on, they remember Oxford as being tremendous fun for these exact reasons. Not me.

What Oxford meant to me was what I think universities are really meant for. It meant an enormous library and the close proximity and accessibility of some incredibly clever people. I had always loved libraries, the bigger the better. Sheffield City Library was, and I think still is, a fantastic municipal library, inspired by those great 19th-century Yorkshire philanthropists.

I'd gone on from there to the Sheffield University library, sneaking in rather illegally as a sixth-former.

The holdings of Oxford were an instant revelation to me. To be in a library which had, in theory, every British book ever published meant more than any amount of punting.

The Oxford English degree then gave you more freedom and trusted its undergraduates more than any degree now does. It was perfectly suited to someone like me.

Each term was devoted to a period – say, 1660-1780. And then you chose what you wanted to do – an author each week, occasionally a fortnight.

That was it. You directed your studies yourself and wrote an essay about whatever interested you. If, like me, you developed an interest in Charles Churchill, or the court masque, or the sonnets of the romantics, that was perfectly fine.

I know plenty of students then felt slightly lost at being asked to navigate their own way through the huge body of English literature. But I loved it.

And nothing meant more to me in Oxford than the chance of sitting down alone with a really distinguished scholar every week and chewing over discoveries. For one paper, we chose a single English poet and just went through him – this was the mid 1980s, they were all "him" – stage by stage. I picked Pope and was lucky enough to be assigned Roger Lonsdale.

He had just produced a revelatory account of the whole of eighteenth century poetry in an incredible anthology. The luck of being able, at 20, to sit down alone with such a figure and talk about this great poet, inch by inch, over eight weeks – it still counts as one of the formative experiences of my life.

Of course, there were other things. There were parties and passionate friendships; there were orchestras and plays; there were even punting expeditions and I dare say I might even have put on a boater, once.

You couldn't help but be aware, too, of people whose ambitions and experiences of life were so much grander than your own had been. People I knew or were aware of became cabinet ministers, editors, novelists, multi-millionaires, movie stars and seemed to understand, even at 20, that these things were possible.

I would never have dared to write a novel if I hadn't gone to university – that particular university, at that particular time.

So many things that are the commonplaces of Oxford reminiscences meant, in the end, not very much to me. It's a beautiful city, but I know cities which are just more beautiful and cities which, in their ensemble, now mean a lot more to me and which are more emotionally resonant – Berlin, Cairo, Damascus.

When I came, years later, to write a novel based on my early life, The Northern Clemency, I sent a character off to Oxford to study, I couldn't in the end think of anything very interesting to say about it.

It doesn't spark my imagination in itself and a lot of the conspicuous features of the place at that time make my imagination shrink in mild distaste. Oddly, though I have a lot of friends who were there at the same time, most of them are friends I've made in London, since leaving.

The one thing that transformed my life and ways of thinking is the exact thing that universities, are there for; the act of studying.

Never again do you have the chance to do nothing but read and to think and talk about books for the sake of it. I don't think I will ever again spend a fortnight reading every single one of Ben Jonson's masques (I recommend Love's Welcome at Bolsover, though.)

I don't think I will ever again spend hours discussing what a fountain in The Faerie Queene might have meant to Spenser. What was the use of it?

Well, it depends what you mean by "use". Entering into the Bodleian, you can't help but feel what Newton felt, that he was walking by the edge of a great sea of knowledge and occasionally picking up a shell which struck him as prettier than the rest.

The experience of a university not only gives you knowledge, but a sense of what you don't know, and will never get round to. That seems to me quite a good thing to understand.

The author's next book, "King of the Badgers", is published next month

Simon Dolan

Not only do I think that you can be successful without going to university, but I believe that it is a complete waste of time for the vast majority of people who end up going.

Many young people are being sold a lie. They are told that if they go to university, get a good degree, then they'll get a great job. But the reality is you're not guaranteed a job – let alone a good job – and you'll be starting off your life thousands of pounds in debt.

Asking if you can afford to go to university is the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is: "If I go to university, will it give me a better chance of getting a good job?"

The answer, in most cases, is no.

Of course, I'm not saying that all degrees are a complete waste of time; vocational ones, such as law, medicine and engineering are essential.

What I object to is this climate we live in now, whereby going to university is pushed on us by the government, everyone is expected to go and it's almost frowned upon if you don't.

I never wanted to go to university. I had part-time jobs from the age of 11 and by the time I left school at 18, I just wanted to get out there and earn money.

The rise in tuition fees could be a good thing, in as much as it will make some people think twice about going to university. I think there's a lot to be said for people doing things the old fashioned way – getting on the bottom of the ladder at a company and working your way up.

When you start, you mustn't be too concerned about how glamorous the job is or what you're doing; it's just getting in there and doing something.

You'll be picking up valuable experience that you can transfer to another company later and you'll have value in the marketplace.

Most university degrees have no value in the marketplace. Everybody's got one now and many of them won't make you better at your job, not like three extra years of work experience.

If you give 18-year-olds the opportunity to prove themselves and show their employer that they can work in a certain environment, then by the time they would be leaving university at 21, they actually would be quite a valued employee. They would certainly be more valuable than a graduate coming out of university with a geography degree, for example.

One girl came to me when she was 18, with very little education and few formal qualifications.

She was a bright young woman and, although she had no real clue about business, I put her on reception and she worked her way up. Years later and she's now a regional director at one of my accountancy firms and earns £250,000 a year.

Let's be honest: most kids breeze through their degrees. As far as I've always seen it, it is the social side of university that is the attraction. People argue that university is character-building; you can meet some interesting people, have a great time and learn to live away from home.

But you can do all that by working too. And you'll be doing it with money that you're earning, rather than with money that you're borrowing.

There's been this push to get more and more young people going to university, not because it would benefit them in any way, but because it would make the politicians look good.

Their party could then lay claim to creating a more educated society, because so much more of the population had gone to university under their government. Never mind that young people come out of university with a sense of entitlement because they've done what they've been told and gone to university and now expect the "good" job they have been promised.

When they can't find work, they are quite rightly frustrated. If they had skipped it, they would have a solid three years of experience.

People say a degree will help you get a job and it might help you get into certain areas, at a certain level, but unless the degree you do is actually going to help you perform your day-to-day job, I would argue that there's no point in getting it and you would be better off going into a company, sweeping the floors or making the tea and working your way up.

You'll have no debt and a three-year head-start on everyone else.

The author is an entrepreneur, owns several accountancy firms and has written "How To Make Millions Without A Degree", published by Matador

What can new students expect?

By Richard Garner

Life for the student of tomorrow will be very different from the traditional image of leafy spires and long summer vacations.

Most of the reaction to the proposal to raise tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year has concentrated on the high levels of debts tomorrow's students will accrue – and whether that will put them off seeking a university place.

That is only part of the picture. The real story will be in how the university world will change to accommodate the class of 2012 and their successors.

For a start, even with the introduction of the present £3,240 top-up fee, we began to witness some changes. The number of young students – under 21 – opting to study via the Open University, for instance, has grown steadily during recent years.

Youngsters – even school leavers – preferred to earn while they learnt, financing their way through higher education with a paid full-time job. With higher charges, that will continue – as will the number of students opting to study at a university near their home, so they can stay with their parents and avoid accommodation costs.

Expect, too, a growth in the number of institutions offering two-year university degrees. The privately-run Buckingham University already does so.

Others will follow suit, as student opt to forgo the more leisurely approach to a degree in order to save a year's fees. Universities Secretary David Willetts has already indicated that he favours a growth in shorter degree courses.

It will not only be those who opt for the Open University who join the earn-while-you-learn path. KPMG has already announced a ground-breaking deal whereby it will pay students £20,000 a year to take its degree courses. Under the scheme, 18-year-olds will sign a six-year contract, splitting their time during the first four years between university and the firm's offices. They will then be guaranteed two years of work with KPMG, ending with a salary of £45,000.

From the company's point of view, it means they will have students who are already aware of the work culture when they leave university. From the students' point of view, well – need I spell it out? Their tuition fees and accommodation costs will also be paid.

Where KPMG has led, others are sure to follow. Rival companies are unlikely to leave it to KPMG to lure the cream of the crop of tomorrow's students.

Some will bemoan the fact – for many students – it will mean missing out on the university experience of three formulative years spent away from home. In fact, there are fears that it may lead to a class divide with only those from richer homes taking the traditional approach to a higher education – and enjoying punting on the river as they always have done.

Others will argue that these trends are part of a practical approach to modern higher education which will ensure as many youngsters as possible take up the opportunity to go to university.

Richard Garner is the education editor of The Independent

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